Quality instruction means investing in quality training for teachers, writes the Anacortes School District superintendent.
The best teachers are learners. They are far better instructors now than they were five years ago. And quality professional training and teacher collaboration often make the difference.
Our state’s largest corporations — Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon — spend billions each year on research and development to remain viable. It is from this kind of research and development that we have innovations such as the Xbox One and the Amazon delivery drone.
Effective teaching requires similar support.
The state legislature is feverishly working on a way to fully fund education. And yet, it’s my understanding that certain legislators believe teacher training should not be included in state funding because it is not “basic education.”
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This is faulty thinking.
The biggest impacts on student learning are quality instruction and school leadership. The Learning Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. just published a study on effective professional development, which concludes it must be active, collaborative, content-focused, expert-informed and sustained over time.
Gone are the days when professional training meant all teachers meeting after school in the conference room for a lecture. These days, teachers roll up their sleeves, examine student work and collaborate in small groups to develop specific strategies to improve student performance.
In the Anacortes School District, we pay for this kind of quality training with limited local levy dollars. One focus is a partnership with the University of Washington where expert math faculty join our teachers in the classroom to model instruction, give feedback and debrief student learning. The work aligns perfectly to our state standards. This year, we’re getting better at teaching students how to justify their mathematical thinking.
With writing, we have a district coach who works with teams and individual teachers to develop instructional strategies and assessment tools to help shape student writing in various genres. Our students are writing more and better than ever before — and the improvement is showing up in their test scores.
A huge part of this effort relies on time — teachers’ most prized commodity — and reflection. It requires the opportunity to step back and think about specific student needs. In Singapore, an international leader in student achievement, the school year includes 100 hours of state-sponsored time for this exact purpose. In our state this year, we received zero hours of such support.
Our local dollars are scarce. Right now, we’re faced with trying to figure out what we can and can’t fund next year — an untenable position given our commitment to closing achievement gaps and raising the bar for all students. While districts receive a modest amount of funding from the federal government for professional development, the current administration has recommended eliminating such funds next year.
We need state support.
The larger context here is important. We live in a time when we are asking our students to know and do more than ever before. Our state boasts rigorous standards and tough graduation requirements. At the same time, last year 45 percent of our students across Washington qualified for a free- or reduced-priced lunch.
Walk into any public-school classroom, and you will likely find a range of academic ability that spans at least a couple of grade levels. Students do not learn in cookie-cutter fashion. Individual teachers need a repertoire of skills to meet the needs of the children who look to them for guidance, insight and inspiration.
Teaching is hard, meticulous, energy-demanding work. If we believe in equity and the promise of our state being a national leader in public education, investing in the growth of our teaching force is a commitment we simply must make.
The Legislature is on the right track with proposing increased compensation for new teachers, which should attract high-quality candidates to the field and retain them. But how we support them is equally critical.
Professional development must be considered a part of basic education. The return on investment is the growth of our kids. And I would put them up against a delivery drone any day.
Mark Wenzel is superintendent of the Anacortes School District. He serves as a representative on the Professional Educators Advisory Board for the principal and superintendent certification program at the University of Washington.